From Fanfic To Pro: Anne Hawley and RESTRAINT

I have known Anne Hawley for going on thirty-five years, since back when we were in college. For most of that time, I have always wished she would write ‘for real.’

Anne with our friend Anne-Marie in front of her, long ago.

My first inkling of her enormous talent was a ten-page parody of the honors program we were enrolled in, recasting all of us in a 19th-century, Jane Austen-style comedy of manners. (I was portrayed as ‘a witty young man of good family who tends to squander his gifts, wasting his inheritance on cards and high living, and perhaps overfond of the grape.’ Even then, I had no real response other than a sheepish, “Nailed it.”)

She claims not to remember this, but I never forgot it. From that day, I was convinced that Anne should be a writer.

I don’t have many good memories from that time– Anne’s parody version of me was, if anything, an understatement of the personal problems I was dealing with then– but my friendship with her was always one of the bright spots, and I’m glad we never lost touch over the years.

Mostly we wrote, first letters and then email. Her letters were always a treat, and I would get carried away myself (before I had a column, my correspondence was the home for my pop culture ranting) and so even though we rarely saw one another in person, each usually knew what the other was up to.

Anne today.

Because of this I knew something about Anne that I suspect many of our fellow students did not, which was that underneath her brilliance and elegant carriage, she was a stone cold superfan. Nerd gossip about various genre shows always comes up in our conversations sooner or later. In the 1990s she was the first person to tell me I should be watching The X-Files, rhapsodizing over the Lone Gunmen characters that had just been introduced and how hysterically funny they were. (I still remember how she could hardly contain herself laughing as she recounted a scene in which the Gunmen told Mulder and Scully about how later they were all going to go online and make fun of the scientific impossibilities in Earth 2.)

When I embarked on the project that eventually became Silver Riders, Anne was one of the first people I told about it, and she ended up being an invaluable consultant on the book. I based the character of Lisbet on her, and tried very hard not to out her when I was talking about the book to other folks. I needn’t have bothered; she was delighted with her fictional avatar and happily tweeted the news to the world the day her copy arrived.

Anne was always an early adopter, a real technophile, and one of the first people I knew to discover the internet. (I know it seems foolish now, after a decade and change as a working online columnist, but I was hugely resistant to the idea of online publishing back then, and we had a fair amount of cheerful back-and-forth over its value.)

As such, it didn’t really surprise me that she had been doing fan fiction, but I privately thought that it was a bit of a shame she wasn’t doing original work of her own. I always called it “real” writing, which is terribly condescending, I have to admit. She worked just as hard on her stories as I did on my paying work. Writing is writing. In any case, she was clearly having the time of her life and what the hell business of it was mine, anyway? Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking she should be doing some kind of original work, books of her own.

And now she is.

Restraint is her new novel. It’s terrific.

It’s a classic Regency romance, but with a twist. Here is the blurb: An unacceptable love… Clergyman’s son John Waterfield is handsome, modest, and oblivious to the gossip swirling around him when he suddenly finds himself Regency London’s most celebrated new portrait artist. His success is assured so long as he can hide his forbidden desires from society–and from himself. Tristan Hay, Viscount Penrith, is under no illusions. His privileged position depends upon his father’s tolerance, his brother’s legacy, and society’s willingness to forget his wild history. His predilection for the intimate companionship of other men is a closely-guarded secret, and he plans to keep it that way. But when Tristan commissions a portrait from John, society notices the spark between them even before they do. Against John’s religious upbringing and Tristan’s deeply held belief in his own corrupt nature, their love grows, and they dare to imagine a life together…until rumour, jealousy, and blackmail force John and Tristan to face a painful choice. Will society tear them apart, or will their deep bond defy a world where their very love is deemed a crime? Dramatic, heartbreaking, and rich in emotion, Restraint is the story of an impossible love that endures sacrifice and tragedy to change two lives forever.

This is not normally my preferred reading, but Anne knows this genre the way I know the history of Batman. It is absolutely her thing. Since it was Anne I knew it would be good, and it was; I couldn’t put it down. And yeah, I’m man enough to admit that I got puddled up a couple of times reading it.

When she talked about maybe doing some sort of virtual book tour among bloggers when the book came out, I told her I would be very annoyed if I wasn’t one of them, which led to the interview you see below. I hope you all like it.

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A book is a big commitment and you spent years on this one. Why THIS story, in THIS genre? What lit the fuse on this for you? Why was it important to you to get it told?

There’s nothing more compelling to me than a story of lovers kept apart by social constructs. Sit me down with Meggie and Father Ralph from The Thorn Birds or Jack and Ennis from Brokeback Mountain or Maria and Tony from West Side Story, hand me a box of Kleenex, and I’ll be happy…happy to be heartbroken. Whether the taboos are around race, religion, gender, or tribe affiliation, I love a good story of forbidden love.

Funny thing, though: I’m also a lifelong fan of the Regency romance novels of Georgette Heyer, where upper-class people with few limits on their privilege navigate the shark-tank of social etiquette in order to find love.

One stressful day at my job as a systems analyst, way back in 2008 when marriage equality was just beginning to gain traction, the muse decided to bop me over the head with “What if two men fell in love in the Regency?”

I began my first draft that day. Yes, at the office.

You spent some time in the fan fiction community, both writing it and reading it, and one of the acknowledgements in the back of the book is a thank-you to that fanfic community. Tell us about your experiences in a writing community like that, advantages and disadvantages. How much of that community input made it into the finished book? Was this your only fan fiction project or were there others?

My fanfic origin story is set in 1999, at a conference I organized around the Rocket eBook, an early e-reader. The hardware was fantastic, but nobody had yet solved the content problem, and the ebook concept would be another ten years coming into its own. At that conference, however, some evil person said, “Hey little girl, wanna read some free stories on your Rocket?” and pointed me to the amazing and shocking world of X-Files and Voyager fanfic on Usenet.

I already considered myself a novelist, with one and a half drawer-novels to my name, so after that I read fanfic for a few years without deigning to write any. Eventually, however, the bug bit and I turned out a novel-length story in an obscure fandom. As I think most transformative fans will attest, along comes one particular property–whether a TV show, a movie, a band, a sports team, or an anime series–and grabs you by the throat.

Mine came in 2008, and within weeks I was writing Restraint.

Ultimately, 65,000 people downloaded it–not a historically high number by any stretch, but large enough to cause a stir in the fandom. It made its way onto Goodreads, got added to all sorts of recommendation lists, and was read by fans and non-fans alike. It enjoyed a long life. If those downloads were translated to sales, it would have had its moment on the bestseller lists.

All this was during the most stressful period of my career. But when I look back on it, I barely remember the job that was paying my bills. What I remember is the joy of this work. I’d wrestle with a chapter, send it to my beta-reader in Scotland, make corrections, and post it. Then within hours the reactions would start coming in. People would comment in the same Jane Austen-esque prose that my narrator used, because that’s how much the story got under their skin.

Readers told me how moved and thrilled they were with the historical accuracy, the emotion, the original characters. A few said the story had changed their views on marriage equality. Though transformative fandom is predominantly a female space, I even heard from a handful of gay men who appreciated a well-written romantic love story between two men.

Nothing in my real career, not even the paycheck, could compete with the artistic gratification of that fandom experience.

It wasn’t all positive. People found fault with some of my historical research. Lots of people hated me for the ending. I corrected the historical inaccuracies as best I could, and have been careful to position the published book as a drama and a love story, but not as a romance, which is a publishing category whose only absolute requirement is a happy ending. I’d call the ending of Restraint more “cathartic” than happy.

You’ve been living with this story for a long time. Can you walk us through how it started life as a piece of fan fiction and then came to exist in its present form as an original novel?

Lots of my fandom readers pointed out that Restraint was fanfiction in name only. Some questioned whether it even belonged on the Archive Of Our Own (AO3: www.ao3.org) which was strictly dedicated to fanworks. A few people accused me of casting popular actors as my characters in a cynical move to gain fannish readers.

These were valid concerns. I really did take the likenesses of two well-loved actors, change their names to fit the period, move them back two centuries and across an ocean, and mix them with a host of original characters. Though Restraint started life as sincere fanfic with a fandom audience at heart, it’s true that I posted it on a fanfic site partly because I didn’t think I could otherwise get it read.

During the production period I wrote furiously at night, hoping to post the story all at once. But after more than a year, with the story stalled at about the three-quarter mark, I decided to light a fire under myself by posting the first few chapters and promising the rest on a weekly basis.

The fandom went nuts over it. Comments poured in begging me to finish, so I had to. Without that feedback, I’m sure my story would still be a work-in-progress, fossilized and forgotten on some retired hard drive.

By the time I posted the final chapter another year later, 50 Shades of Grey, the infamous Twilight fanfic by E.L. James, had become the biggest thing to hit publishing since Harry Potter. The longstanding barrier between fanfic and “realfic” was beginning to dissolve. I saw my opening and decided to go for it.

This isn’t the place to delve into whether fanfiction “counts” as a valid art form (it does) or whether as a largely women’s pursuit it has been unduly denigrated (it has). There is some fabulous storytelling in that world, but not all fanfic seeks to tell a structured story. It’s a glorious ferment of creativity, self-expression, sexual exploration and social comment.

As Camille Bacon-Smith, a sociologist who studies fanworks, has pointed out, the mostly-female writers of fanfiction “cannot sell their work, but they don’t have to meet commercial criteria for success either: they must please only the predominantly female fan community.”

But I did want to meet commercial criteria for success. The problem was, I didn’t know for sure what they were. I’ve written about that learning process over at Story Grid, but the short version is that the road from sprawling 230,000-word fanfic to 120,000-word published novel involved my actually becoming a professional editor.

Most writers doing a long-form project like this have some sort of realization during the process that “Oh, wait, THAT’S what this is, now I know what I am doing.” You certainly must have had a moment like that, or likely several considering what a long and winding road the book had. What was the big turning point, or points, for you?

The enormous response from people in the fandom told me that I’d written something worthwhile. So many readers encouraged me to publish my story that I decided to “file the serial numbers off,” as fan writers used to call turning a fic into a commercially publishable book. How hard could it be, right? Just change the names, maybe make one of them a redhead…easy peasy.

But cutting the length meant cutting more than a few excess words. It meant cutting whole scenes, whole subplots, whole characters. I had no idea how to proceed, and the project lay fallow for several years. One day a fellow writer gently pointed out that my ability to craft a beautiful sentence does not mean I have nothing more to learn about writing.

She introduced me to the Story Engineering principles of Larry Brooks, and then to Steven Pressfield’s classic The War of Art, and I began to embrace the difficult idea of “turning pro.” Turning Pro does not necessarily meaning earning a living (or even any money) but rather treating your craft with respect and discipline.

I began to see that writing is more than waiting for the muse to strike, and that editing is more than proofreading. I started reading books on writing.

Then I found The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Steven Pressfield’s editor, Shawn Coyne. He writes:

Can there be an innovative literary novel that is also a barnburner of a read? Or a potboiler that is exquisitely written? Such is the Holy Grail of publishing. And of course the answer is a resounding YES. When line-by-line writing and global story magic come together, our jaws drop. It’s why we pick up any book, hoping that this one will join the short list of those that have changed our lives.

When I read that, I knew I’d found my path.That was the story I aspired to turn my fanfiction into. I ended up studying with Shawn, using everything he teaches to rewrite Restraint as a commercial novel, and eventually becoming a Story Grid Certified Editor myself.

Restraint is a love story, but done in a very particular genre; the Regency romance. Can you tell us a little about that particular style of story? What are the typical genre conventions, and how bound did you feel to play by the rules, so to speak?

The term Regency refers to the period in England from 1811 to 1820, when Prince George acted as Regent for the mad king, George III. The Regency romance genre was invented by Georgette Heyer more than 100 years later with her 1935 novel Regency Buck.

She established conventions that would spawn imitators for the next 83 years (and counting): dialogue in the style of Jane Austen, close attention to costume and other period details, and courtship between members of high society, where small class differences and the gaze of a censorious social elite restrain people’s choices and movements.

Heyer’s novels inhabit a carefully-curated version of the period, overflowing with accurate historical detail but mostly devoid of poverty, rape, prostitution, people of color, brutality to animals, or homosexuality.

As a genre, it sounds problematic today–and it is. But readers and writers are still drawn to it, and continue to explore and transform it well into the 21st century. Works like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Death Comes to Pemberley (both examples of Jane Austen fanfic), and Susanna Clarke’s masterful fantasy Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, owe something to the Regency romance.

Some of the enduring appeal of the period–and the genre–comes from the fact that the Industrial Revolution was just beginning. The railroad, the telegraph and steamships were still to come, so it’s on the cusp of scientific modernity. There was a recognizable urban London lifestyle, a postal service, and a budding police force, but we still find all the ye-olde-worlde historical appeal of horse-drawn carriages, quill pens, poet shirts, and dueling pistols.

Sodomy was a capital crime and public executions of convicted “sodomites” were still occasionally carried out. It was the Age of Enlightenment–but only if you were a straight, white, upper-class man.

So being gay, lesbian, or transgender was utterly taboo, and that was the kind of social restraint I was interested in. How could two men in love, both public figures with society’s eyes on them, ever be together? How would the mannered conventions of Regency romance play out between a religious young artist and a standard Regency aristocrat-hero who happened to have a secret predilection for the intimate society of other men?

Though the story began life as a light and frivolous comedy of manners and a blatant ripoff of Georgette Heyer’s style, by the time I was a few chapters in, its inescapable ending hit me. I was in the bath, and I remember hanging my arm over the edge of the tub and just weeping. It was my Marat moment:

…because writers are nothing if not dramatic about the Muse.

That was where this fanfic turned into a serious project requiring real research and respectful attention to what it meant to be a gay man in 1818.

You didn’t just write the book, you designed it as well, didn’t you? I know you’ve written some on your blog about how the cover evolved and how that process went, but I’d love it if you could tell us that story here.

Conventional wisdom advises self-publishing authors not to put a scene from the story on their book cover. Why not? Probably because artwork that good is hard to find and expensive, and if you get it wrong it’ll look just plain stupid.

But the heart wants what it wants, and who doesn’t love a full-color illustration on the book they’re reading? Besides, coming from a family of artists and craftspeople, I had a few unusual advantages. So I went for it.

I hired a nice local kid with modeling aspirations to pose for me (“Strictly above board. Fully clothed,” ran my ad. He brought his big sister with him anyway, just in case).

Craigslist provided the chair he would be posing in. I reupholstered it in period damask (old curtains, eBay). I borrowed a Persian rug. I designed and sewed a poet shirt, a brocade vest, and knee-breeches. It was an extravaganza of junk-shop scouring, gold spray-painting, staple gunning, fabric dyeing, and general freaking out.

All the advance work paid off in the actual photoshoot, however, which took the photographer–my sister–all of one hour.

Then a real painter and Photoshop professional took over. He turned the photo into the near oil-painting you see on the book cover. It was gorgeous, painstaking work, and frankly would have cost me at least a couple thousand dollars, except that the artist who created it is my own genius of a brother.

I did the typesetting myself in Adobe InDesign, which was a huge time-sink that honestly I will never do again. But it allowed me to get exactly the book I wanted both inside and out.

It’s a beautiful object in its own right, and I hope the story inside lives up to it.

Now that this one’s in print and out the door, what’s next?

I’m deep in research on a new historical novel, centered on a magical society like the Order of the Golden Dawn. It’s set in 1905, and features a silversmith, an architect, a drag performer, a lady alienist, and prostitutes on bicycles in downtown Portland. The people at the Oregon Historical Society research library are starting to look at me kind of funny. I hope to have a draft by the end of the year.

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And there you have it. Restraint is available here. and I honestly do recommend it unreservedly.

Back next week with something cool.

4 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    “…overfond of the grape.” *snort* That’s such an awesome turn of phrase…

    Great interview, Greg, and kudos and congratulations to Anne. And yet another book has been added to my want-list. Actually, two, as I know I *really, really* want to read the new historical novel she’s working on.

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